Sermons

Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If you have attended any of our celebrations of the Holy Eucharist that take place on major feasts on weekdays, or if you have tuned into them online, you will have noticed that I’ve gotten into the habit of reading an excerpt of a sermon or commentary written by the church fathers instead of a sermon of my own. In case you were interested, these come from a book which provides readings for every day of the year called Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church, edited by one of my seminary Church History professors–the late, great Canon J. Robert Wright.

On Friday, the Feast of the Epiphany, if you were there or if you were livestreaming the liturgy, and if you were really paying attention, you might have either been confused or assumed that I had made a mistake. While the Gospel which we invariably read on the Epiphany was what you’d expect–the visit of the three wise men–the homily, written by Gregory Nazianzus, the Fourth Century theologian and Archbishop of Constantinople, had nothing to do with the magi following yonder star and presenting gold frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child and slipping past wicked Herod on their trip back home. Instead, it commented on the theme we encounter today–namely, Christ’s Baptism.

This was not a mistake, though. It was, no doubt, a choice the editor (my old instructor) made to focus on the Eastern rather than the Western Christian focus of Epiphany –unsurprising, since he had done a great deal of work in laying the historical and theological foundations for contemporary ecumenical dialogue between the Anglican and Russian Orthodox Churches. You see, among the Orthodox and other Eastern Rite Churches, the focus of Epiphany (or Theophany as they’d call it) is not on the Magi but on the Baptism.

Epiphany, meaning manifestation, and Theophany, meaning God’s (self-)revelation, are themes which both of these events from Christ’s life highlight. The magi and their gifts point both to the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles and his tripartite status as prophet, priest, and king. Thirty years later in Jesus’ life (though only separated by two days in our liturgical calendar this year) we see an even more profound example of God’s self-revelation–the fact that Christ himself was and is a person of the Triune Godhead. Here we see the Spirit of God made physically present in the form of a dove and the voice of the Father made audibly manifest. Such a clear, literal manifestation of the Holy Trinity would only occur once more in the Gospel accounts, at the Transfiguration which is quite appropriately the Gospel we’ll hear on the last Sunday of the Epiphany season in six weeks’ time.

The point here; the message of the Magi and of the Baptism and of the Transfiguration; the Good News of this season of the Church’s year, is that we have a God who desires to be known. We have a God who has no desire to hide himself or his purpose.

Do not let the fact that sometimes the work of theology and biblical interpretation can be difficult give the impression that the Truth of God’s word is intentionally vague or veiled. Christianity is not a religion which should have any time or tolerance for the proposition that there is secret knowledge meant only for insiders. Religions which make such claims have a name, and that name is cult. This is true of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, which claimed one had to attain knowledge of God through a personal mystical communication. It is also true of modern cults, which might either explicitly withhold certain doctrinal claims until one has paid enough money to advance in the group or implicitly, say by instructing the young men who come knocking at your door to carefully elide more bizarre claims, like getting your own planet and harem at the resurrection if you’re a dude (let the listener understand).

Christianity has no secrets, because we believe God’s greatest desire is to be known. Because knowing God, we know love and can make love known to all. Our great privilege is the opportunity to do the same–to open ourselves to the fullness of God and then to turn round and help others come to know him, too. We can do so clearly, gently, without prevarication, with utter transparency and gratitude, because God himself did it first–in Bethlehem and at the Jordan and on the Mount of Transfiguration and to all he met after his glorious Resurrection. And he comes to us still–in our hearts, in his Word, in the Sacrament, and in this great fellowship into which we have ourselves been baptized and made a part of his own Body to be a light to the world he came to save.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Holy Name Day

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning we celebrate a principal feast of the Church, which is actually the conflation of two themes we find, however briefly, in this morning’s Gospel. We call this day the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, but for those of you who remember a prayerbook prior to 1979, you will perhaps remember the old name of the holiday: the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus.

Indeed, both happen in this morning’s Gospel and both are of a piece:

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

I suspect the rationale for the name change had something to do with our discomfort for something as seemingly indecent as discussion of circumcision in a church. Even so, it is hard for me to understand why we do not acknowledge both themes in our church calendar. So, for this morning, let us rename the day to include both: The Feast of the Circumcision and of the Holy Name of Jesus.

My initial draft of this sermon covered both themes, but it ended up being far too long for those recovering from whatever festivities might have taken place last night, so, let’s focus this morning on the bit that I can say with some confidence will get less attention in pulpits today: namely, the circumcision. From this seemingly passing acknowledgment in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus was indeed circumcised we gain more insight into the person of Jesus than we might expect.

First, and most obviously, we see an affirmation of Jesus’ Judaism. Not only was he circumcised, but it was done on the eighth day, the proper time for a faithful Jewish family to have the rite performed for their child. It is notable that this is found in Luke’s Gospel, often hailed as the most gentile of the Gospels and written by the only New Testament writer who was a gentile himself. This apparently minor fact serves as a powerful rebuke against the purveyors of antisemitism, a backward worldview that has sadly seemed to have increased in recent years–note the recent Kanye West debacle. It should go without saying (though, increasingly, it must be said) that our salvation is founded upon a Covenant which came before us- a Covenant which God gave the children of Israel, just as truly as God gave us the New Covenant.

Secondly, the circumcision reminds us that Jesus is a man. By man I do not mean male (though we also have to assume that bit considering that he was circumcised). I mean that we are reminded that Christ was a human being. If this seems obvious, it is because we live in the twenty-first century rather than in the first. Christ’s humanity was just as hotly contested as His divinity in the early centuries of the Church. Very early in the church’s history (and I would argue even before the Canon of Scripture had been completely composed) there were various heretics (docetists and Gnostics) who denied the orthodox view of Christ’s Incarnation as it would later be defined in the Nicene Creed. The circumcision of Christ reminds us that Jesus wasn’t just some ghosty pretending to be a human, but that He was and is a flesh-and-blood human being. And, as St. Irenaeus reminds us, this is extremely important, because unless Christ were truly human he could not have saved humanity. The Cross would have been nothing more than play-acting if it weren’t for the fact that the body it bore bridged humanity and divinity.

Finally, we see in the circumcision a foreshadowing of Christ’s mission and, in some sense, a commencement of the sacrifice of His life. The Incarnation itself was a sacrifice of the highest caliber, as we are reminded in this morning’s epistle- very God of very God becoming frail and limited by taking on the form of a slave. But in the circumcision we find bloodshed. Forgive my very old-fashioned theology (it is of a sort which would preclude my receiving tenure on many theology faculties, believe it or not), but the atonement which was to be effected on the Cross, the substitution of the perfect man for sinful men through the blood of the everlasting Covenant, begins with the Christ child in St. Joseph’s arms undergoing the rite prescribed. In the arms of the man who would protect Him and His Blessed Mother from the wrath of Herod is the Christ Child given His first taste of the kind of pain which is borne through obedience and which is ultimately salutary.

And so, this day we greet the Christ Child again, but not only as the babe in the manger. We greet Him as an intermediary, an intercessor, a bridge: as the bridge between God’s two great Covenants, as the bridge between Godhood and humanity, and as the bridge between the old life of sin and death and the new life of redemption and Resurrection through his Precious Blood.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Christmas Eve

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Many of you know (and I mentioned in a sermon a few weeks ago) that my favorite piece of Christmas pop culture ephemera is the 1965 CBS special A Charlie Brown Christmas. My wife, quoting something she had read on Twitter, put this peculiar preference into perspective for me this year: “A Charlie Brown Christmas takes the tried and true formula that every child just loves… melancholy plus experimental jazz.” I can take or leave experimental jazz (I don’t think I’m musically refined enough to fully appreciate it, to be honest) but melancholy–now, that’s my jam!

Joking aside, I think this brings up an important point not just about the Feast of the Nativity and the miracle of the Incarnation, but also about the shape of the Christian life in response to the truth of this night. It points to a reality about the human condition–namely, the existence of sadness and darkness and grief, all results of the Fall–in the light of our reasonable and holy hope. And I think it encourages us to take a bit more care in how we talk about that reality, making a distinction between emotional states (which are neither normative nor constitutive of one’s soul) and spiritual qualities which are.

Now that’s all a bit dense, so let me begin unpacking it by calling upon the lazy preacher’s favorite tactic: when in doubt, denounce something. This will be a gentle denunciation, though, (more a quibble than a trumpet blast) because it’s about something which arises from a good intention, but which I think fundamentally misses the mark. I don’t know if this is still “a thing”, but there was a fad some years ago among churches to have something they called a “Blue Christmas” service, usually some days before the feast itself, often on the Winter Solstice–the darkest day of the year. It was intended specifically for people for whom Christmas is a difficult time of year due to some loss or struggle or dysfunction. I’m sure such services were meant to normalize or de-stigmatize difficult emotions around the holidays, presumably whether it be the mild melancholy of A Charlie Brown Christmas or real, debilitating depression or anything in-between. I get that; it seems to come from a place of care and concern and love.

That said, I cannot imagine any amount of contextualization, any number of disclaimers, neither the subtlest preaching nor the canniest liturgical craftsmanship which would sending the unintentional message to many that “real Christmas” is for jolly people and “Blue Christmas” is set aside for the presumably cheerless, who are “thrown a bone” on some other, convenient occasion. Again, I’m sure this is not the intention, and perhaps my profound discomfort with liturgical innovation makes me more sensitive than most, but my “gut reaction” to this sort of thing is that it can be counter-productive.

The truth is, there are doubtless some here tonight who are having the holly-jolliest of Christmases and there are some here tonight who are having the most difficult Christmas of their lives due to some pain or loss, and there are a whole heck of a lot of us somewhere in between. And it is good for us to be in this place together tonight. That is because God’s promise to us is not jollity but joy, not mere cheerfulness but lasting happiness which abides even in seasons of great distress. Because Christ being born in Bethlehem and in our hearts doesn’t mean we’ll be spared trouble or even trauma in this life; rather, it means that amidst all the changes and chances of this life, Christ’s abiding presence can give us a deeper peace. What’s more, being a part of a community where we share in each others’ joys and sorrows means we can all hold each other up, with God’s help, through all those exigencies.

Toxic positivity, the suggestion that one must always be blithesome and pleasant, has no place in the faith of the bible or of any humane worldview. God chose–and this is what tonight is all about–to enter human history in all its messiness and difficulty and sorrow. Can you imagine the scene that night in Bethlehem? Yes, it is a joyful scene, but it is not a particularly mirthful one. The Holy Family are not in the comfort of their home, but in a place meant for livestock. The shepherds don’t break out the champagne when they get there. Our Lady’s response is pensive and prayerful. We might say that the first Christmas was happy, in the truest sense of that word, but it wasn’t merry. (One thing I always loved about her late majesty’s Christmas speeches was her insistence on wishing her subjects a “Happy Christmas” rather than a “Merry Christmas”, I think for precisely this reason.)

And how appropriate is this for the one who would go on to live a life both wondrous and sorrowful? Those with us again tomorrow at 10 a.m. will have the opportunity to sing those wonderful words from a hymn which is a classic but sadly didn’t quite “make the cut” for Christmas Eve “Once in Royal David’s City”: “For he feeleth for our sadness, and he shareth in our gladness.” We have a God who chose to share with us this whole beautiful, tragic, sometimes sweet, sometimes horrific experience of life in a fallen world in order to redeem the same.

So, the truth of the Incarnation doesn’t mean that every day will be sunshine and lollipops and trips to the zoo. The one who took up his cross and bid us follow didn’t promise that. It is, however, the only way to true and lasting joy in this life, that peace which passes understanding, and to eternal bliss in the next. So, whether your heart is heavy or light tonight, whether you’re feeling it or not, whether this is for you the best Christmas ever or the worst, God stands ready to give you his Grace. Christ, the Word of God through whom you were created, provides his very Body and Blood in the Sacrament to keep you in everlasting life. The same Spirit who spoke by the prophets bids you come to be comforted. The one God who came as perfect man to redeem humanity has made you whole. Our faith is built on nothing less than this, and even the gates of hell shall not prevail against us.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.